The 21-day rule has become so popular that we all just assumed there is solid clinical data to back it up. The hard truth is that, the number of days it takes to make a new habit stick is determined by factors that vary from individual to individual. Factors like the kind of habit being formed, a person’s experience and personality, his environment, etc. However, what research actually tells us is that the number of days it takes to forge a new behaviour can be 18, 50, 200 – there really is no rule. It ultimately depends – on you.
You are not a robot and you are not about to switch to autopilot on day 21.
Okay. It’s true. Our brain helps us form and retain new behaviour. Neural activity patterns in our brain change with repetitive behaviour, helping us to ever continue repeating the same response or action consistently. Some habits get so ingrained in us they become almost like reflex. You get home and see clutter, you automatically clean up. You wake up and go straight to the bathroom or whatever is your morning ritual. In other words, habits get easier through time. But as discussed above, “time” can vary on a case-to-case basis.
Thus, once your target behaviour has become very consistent, don’t stop doing it. Don’t break the flow. Be faithful. Stay on course. Stay intentional. Remember, you are not a programmed robot. Our life is determined by the choices we make. (That’s we need to live by design and not by default.)
To sustain a new habit, you have to choose to keep doing it. The brain’s “pattern-enforcing synaptic pathways” simply make sticking to repetitive behaviour easier..
This is a well-known technique that works really well. Science tells us that behaviors are best learned in chains or as part of a succession of actions. A trigger is an activity that cues us to perform the new behavior. The best triggers are the ones that are constants in your routine. For example, having breakfast. Breakfast can be an effective trigger for drinking vitamins. It is easier to form a new habit when we use a trigger because instead of forming a new habit at a certain time of a day, we actually attach it to a habit that we already have.
“Addictive” does not have to be bad. For example, playing with a cute habit application can be a fun way to reward yourself as well as track your progress. HabitBull, for example is a habit tracker which allows you to put check marks on a calendar, one day at a time. Marking the circles is fun and feels rewarding. Seeing the nice upward graph makes you feel accomplished. On the other hand, the x marks and fluctuating graph motivates you to do better. The visual reward may be simple and practically worthless to other people, but even little things can have a big impact.
You have just completed 30 days of faithful daily exercise. Then you get injured. You can’t do your usual routine. You don’t necessarily have to stop. Ask your doctor if you’re allowed to do a lighter version of your workout. If you can’t lift weights, could you at least jog or do some brisk walking? Slowing down is better than screeching into a complete halt.
Or maybe you wake up to a chaotic day and an emergency awaits you at the office. You’re left with only 10 minutes instead of 30 for your daily workout. Exercise for 10 minutes.
Most of us feel disgruntled when our routine gets interrupted and so we just pack up and leave. If disruptions can’t be avoided because of your health, your erratic work schedule, or your broken alarm clock, find some meaningful flexibility and get back on track as soon as possible.
There seems to be this mindset that to succeed at something, we have to do every step of the journey perfectly. We have conditioned ourselves to believe that if we fail on day 9, it cancels out days 1 to 8. Perhaps, in some other life scenario this is true, but when it comes to habit formation, one mistake should not cancel out 8 successful days of practice.
What do we do then? Simple. Stay sober. Don’t panic. Don’t fall into the illusion that just because you failed at one temptation, you are doomed to utterly fail. That is silly. We all fail at one (two, three, four…) point(s). The goal is to keep building, to keep forming the best habits for success in life.
So if you’re on a diet… instead of eating an entire pint of ice cream after failing at resisting one scoop, remind yourself how far you’ve gone, tell yourself that it’s easier to recover from one scoop instead of 1 pint.
What do you do when you fail at 5,000 words of writing exercise on Tuesday? Do you write 10,000 words on Wednesday? What if you miss it again? Do you pile up your debt until you can’t pay it anymore?
Most of us pile up guilt on ourselves when we fail. We punish ourselves. We get discouraged. We falter, not because we lack dedication and motivation, but because our guilt and self-doubt have gotten the better of us. Stop making life extra hard. Forgive yourself and start anew. Write 5,000 words. If you can, write more. But don’t impose impossible sanctions on yourself. It will only make your routine harder! Remember, the idea is to form a habit, not reach a quota.
These are but a few of many ways to make new behaviors last. In essence, creating new behavior, for you to become the best version of yourself, takes time and patience. It takes a lot of getting back up and cheering yourself on. So don’t get disoriented when you trip along the way, because forming new behavior is not a sprint but a marathon. Those who keep going are the ones who succeed.